Middle School Program Creating Next Generation Thinkers

Last week I had the unique opportunity to visit a new educational experience called the La Crosse Design Institute in Wisconsin. This Charter School exists within an established Middle School and allows 7th and 8th Grade students to learn in a project-based method based on a platform of design principles. This school should serve as a model for what we should be doing in education across the country. An introductory video can be viewed here:

The 40 attending students are drawn from both high-achieving and academically struggling children. Each student selects their own set of projects and acts as their own project manager. Students learn the basics of science, math, language, etc. while being exposed to design thinking, critical thinking, and systems thinking approaches.

There are two full-time teachers who act more as advisors than instructors. There are no traditional lectures and testing. The students must match curriculum requirements to each project, and meet with their teachers on a regular basis to monitor progress and learning goals that they mutually establish. The student work environment is open and unconventional which creates an open and flowing sense of place.

Middle School Program Creating Next Generation ThinkersWhile there is a certain unstructured feel to which projects are selected, there is structure to the program. The structure is just different from what one would expect with children of this age. It is inspiring to see how enthusiastically and quickly children respond to increasing expectation levels.

Two key pieces of software are in place to help the students match state recognized curriculum. One is called Project Foundry for project management, and the other is called ALEKS for math and science content. Both of these products supply some key structure for more technical instruction.

The purpose of this program’s approach is to allow students to gain deeper knowledge and insight into their studies by applying what they learn to real-world issues. There has been significant interest and involvement from local business and community leaders. Students are invited to visit business locations that are aligned with their selected projects. Local professionals in engineering, medicine, architecture, and many other disciplines also visit the school to make presentations and become involved in some of the student projects. One current project has students designing their own classroom environment and solving their own acoustical and lighting issues.

According to the school’s Principal, Dr. Penny Reedy, the aim for the school is to produce “thinkers.” One of the major shortcomings of our existing educational approaches is that students are presented with a body of knowledge from a teacher and are graded on their ability to regurgitate facts on a test, facts that they memorize for a short period of time. Additionally, teachers and students in schools today spend many hours preparing for state testing which leaves little time for students to engage, use their imaginations and creativity, and enjoy the learning process. The result of conventional education is students see learning as painful drudgery and boredom, and provides students with little to no understanding of how their education will actually be useful to them in their adult careers.

The next step is for Dr. Reedy’s team to advance the model to the high school level. Many children have no idea how they might apply an area of interest into a career. By getting students more enthusiastic and involved in their own education, the objective is to develop students who can become more productive and effective by the time they enter the workforce, and not hope that college or technical schools can figure it out at the end of the process. Injecting a design-based approach into a high school should prove highly inspirational and guide students’ interests so they have a better understanding of their skills and abilities for post-high school education selection, as well as a more thoughtful and creative workforce.

The school’s website can be viewed for a bit more information.

Anyone trying to answer the question of how to create more innovative thinkers should look in detail at this newly emerging educational format.

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Roy LuebkeRoy Luebke is an innovation expert focused on discovering new, customer-driven opportunity areas to help define the future of a company. He is inspired by knowledge and learning, and applying structured tools and methods at the crossroads of strategy and innovation to achieve business growth.

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3 Responses to Middle School Program Creating Next Generation Thinkers

  1. Pingback: NCN Articles of Interest 11/11/11 « National Creativity Network

  2. Introducing what design is, what it does and why it is important is crucial to transforming K12 education. Design thinking encourages ownership of ideas and expects propositional thinking. NEXT.cc is an educational non profit that provides teacher training to the LaCrosse School Teachers and continues to expand place based eco literacy and digital fluency in STEM to STEAM opportunities. It offers activities across nine scales- nano, pattern, object, space, architecture, neighborhood, urban, region, and world. NEXT.cc’s 130+ journeys integrate over 1300 museums, institutions and contemporary practices. NEXT.cc reaches young people, their teachers and their families with meaningful learning experiences that create positive influence on lives.

    NURTURE Imagination
    INSPIRE wonder of the built and natural world
    PROMOTE stewardship of the environment
    ENABLE eco literacy and digital fluency through place based design projects
    CONNECT classrooms in an eco-web community

    NEXT.cc is a collaborative effort by principals, teachers, architects, artists and students. Founded as an educational non-profit in 2007(after 2002 and 2004 pilots) NEXT.cc researches and creates transdisciplinary journeys that engage local ideas with global practices. Participants move from the computer into the community and learn about themselves, their neighbors, and their friends as they engage history and culture of place and explore sustainable design possibilities. NEXT.cc delivers eco literacy and digital fluency changing STEM (Science,Technology, Engineering and Math)
    teaching to STEEAM (Science,Technology,Environment, Engineering, Art and Math).

    NEXT.cc is partnered with Ace Mentors, Earth Day Network, National Environmental Education Foundation, Global Campaign For Climate Action, US Green Charter Schools, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Creative Divergents, the Smithsonian, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Harvard Career Links Project, FutureLab’s InfoCow, UIA’s Architecture and Children Program, and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. NEXT.cc workshops have reached over 3500 teachers and 15,000 students since the inception of the eco web.

    Union of International Architects Architecture + Children Golden Cubes 2011
    Wisconsin Arts Board Creative Communities Grant 2011
    USGBC Excellence in Green Building Education Award 2009
    SAIC Presidential Urban Engagement Award 2009
    American Architectural Foundation Merit Award 2009
    National Endowment for the Arts Design Education Award 2008
    American Architectural Foundation Merit Award 2006

  3. Pingback: Designing Students | Ideas At Work

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